Five Tips for Boosting Your Rate of Return of Verification Forms
HUD requires that you verify all information given to you by applicants and residents that affects your assessment of their eligibility for housing and level of assistance. The owner is responsible for determining if a verification documentation is adequate and credible.
According to the HUD Handbook, the most acceptable method of verification is upfront-income verification. This is verification of income before or during a certification and/or recertification, through an independent source that systematically and uniformly maintains income information in a computerized form. Next, in order of acceptability, is written verification from the appropriate third party. If third-party verification isn’t available, owners must document the tenant file to explain why third-party verification wasn’t available [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 5-13(A)].
Many site owners or managers send out verification forms that the third-party source simply needs to complete and return. However, if the forms don’t come back, you’re faced with having to invest additional time to follow up. The issue of a nonresponsive source is briefly discussed in a recent court ruling summarized in this issue. In this case, the owner sent a form to an applicant’s prior landlords to assess rental history as part of the site’s screening criteria. The court noted that this site, with its long waiting list, had the luxury of rejecting applications from individuals who would be perfectly good tenants, simply because their previous landlords refused, were too busy, or were simply unwilling to respond in a matter of days to a form letter seeking rental history information.
Your site might not have this luxury. To increase your chances of getting information verification forms back, try the following five tips:
Tip #1: Use the Personal Touch
When you request information from a household member about the verification source, also ask for a contact person’s name, phone number, and email address. That way you have a specific person to send the form to and/or call on the phone, if needed.
You also can identify a contact person indirectly. If the source is one you contact often, such as a local bank branch, for example, or a major employer in your area, you should make note of the person who most often completes and returns your verification forms. You can develop a working relationship with that person to improve your rate of return of forms.
Tip #2: Give the Source a ‘Heads Up’
Before you mail or send out a verification form, call ahead and let the source know that it’s coming. When sources know to expect the form and what its purpose is, they could be more likely to reply and to do so promptly. If you have an established working relationship with the source, she’s more likely to call you with any questions or concerns after she receives the form. It all works toward getting the most complete information you can from the source in a timely manner.
If you need to send a verification form and don’t have a specific contact person’s name, call the source and explain what you need to do and why. Ask for the name of the person you should send the form to and a phone number. Make a note of that information for future reference.
In speaking with the contact person, identify yourself, where you’re calling from, and the purpose of your call. Explain what information the form asks for and why you need it. Emphasize that the information is being used to help assess the applicant’s or household member’s eligibility for housing assistance. Assure the contact person that you have a signed statement from the applicant or household member authorizing the source to release relevant information. Indicate that you know the person’s time is valuable and give an estimate of how long it should take to complete the form.
But don’t say, “It will take you just a minute to do this,” when in fact you know it’s more likely to take 15 minutes. Instead, you could tell the contact person that there are “just five questions” on the form, and let him draw his own conclusion as to how much time it will take to complete the form.
Finally, encourage the person to call you with any questions or concerns after he receives the verification form from you.
Tip #3: Be Clear with Instructions
Make the instructions on your verification form as clear and complete as possible. Spell out what you need in simple, straightforward terms. Avoid terms used in the HUD Handbook that might be unfamiliar to those completing your forms. Keep your instructions and your questions brief.
Your verification form instructions should include the reason you’re requesting the information, even if you already covered that ahead of time on the phone when you called. Reiterate in your instructions that the household member or applicant has authorized the release of the information.
Tip #4: Make It Easier to Return
You can send a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your verification form for the source to return or have the source send you the form by facsimile or email as long as adequate effort is made to ensure that the sender is a valid third-party source. Ease of return makes a big difference in the rate of return.
Information sent by fax is most reliable if the owner and the verification source agree to use this method in advance during a telephone conversation. The fax should include the company name and fax number of the verification source [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 5-13 (B)(2)(a)]. Similar to faxed information, information verified or sent by email is more reliable when preceded by a telephone conversation and/or when the email address includes the name of an appropriate individual and firm [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 5-13 (B)(2)(b)].
Also, it can be useful to note that information verified on the Internet is considered third-party verification if the owner is able to view web-based information from a reputable source on the computer screen [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 5-13 (B)(2)(c)]. For example, suppose a resident maintains a portfolio of stocks and bonds through an Internet-based stockbroker. And the broker only provides electronic account statements and won’t respond to a written verification request. The owner may accept a printout of the applicant’s most recent statement if it includes the relevant information required for third-party verification and an Internet address and header or footer that identifies the company issuing the statement. If the owner has reason to question the authenticity of a document, the owner may require the resident to access the electronic file via the Internet in the owner’s office, without providing the owner with username or password information.
Tip #5: Express Your Appreciation
If you frequently ask the same source or sources to complete your verification forms, send a thank you note now and then. Sending a note even once a year is a nice gesture of appreciation.